These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.
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Sketches From the Front: An Artist's Dispatches, Rendered in Ink and Paint
By CAROL KINO
Though contemporary American art often flirts with politics, it is not usually noted for its head-on engagement with war. Yet some of the most compelling commentary on Iraq has come from a New York painter, Steve Mumford, who has been embedded with military units in hot spots like Baquba, Tikrit and Baghdad on and off since April 2003.
Mr. Mumford has posted frequent dispatches on the Web magazine Artnet. Each is accompanied by drawings and paintings - many made on the spot - illustrating people and places in the story. Titled "Baghdad Journal," the project strikes a somewhat incongruous note amid the magazine's usual fare of reviews, gossip and party pictures.
The 16th and final entry, to be posted this week, chronicles the attempts of the Third Brigade of the First Cavalry Division to quell insurgents in Baghdad in late October, toward the end of Mr. Mumford's last visit. He opens with a description of the city and the military blimp that hovers above it, gathering intelligence.
"I often imagined the view from up there," he writes, "especially on one afternoon in mid-October when I found myself running across Talaa Square with Third Platoon just after a young soldier had been killed by a sniper."
The dispatch ends with the memorial service for Sgt. Jack Hennessy of the First Battalion, Ninth Cavalry, killed by friendly fire from an Iraqi National Guard unit. As a first sergeant in the battalion calls out the dead soldier's name a third and final time, the company falls silent. "In the quiet that follows I find my own tears falling onto my drawing pad," Mr. Mumford writes. The accompanying drawing, a modest sketch made with sepia ink, shows a soldier saluting before Sergeant Hennessy's helmet, rifle and boots.
Now 44, Mr. Mumford had been comfortably embedded in the London and New York gallery worlds. He was known for paintings that seemed to pit two disparate Americas - wilderness and society - against each other by depicting, for example, a car seen against a sublime landscape or a wild animal about to pounce at a house. The work was technically impressive but creatively confused. Like many contemporary artists, Mr. Mumford seemed fascinated by 19th-century American art but stymied by the task of making it new.
Yet in the end, that art helped set him free. Mr. Mumford says his inspiration for the project stemmed directly from his admiration for the painter Winslow Homer, who was sent to the front during the Civil War to sketch for Harper's Weekly.
Mr. Mumford was already working on a Vietnam series when the war in Iraq began. By that time, the subject of war had become "an all-consuming interest," he said. "It sort of hit me: why don't I go over there?"
He called around to military bases in an attempt to have himself embedded, but his efforts were fruitless. Nor did he get far with magazines and newspapers: the only taker was Artnet, which gave him a press pass. Eventually, Mr. Mumford said, "I realized the only way to do it was to buy a ticket." (He financed the project with sales of his own work and with a little help from his wife, the painter Inka Essenhigh.)
Mr. Mumford made his first trip in April 2003. After arriving in Kuwait, he hitched a ride to Baghdad with a French reporter. He soon happened across an approachable army unit patrolling the banking district. He hit it off with the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter (now retired and a military analyst for Fox News), and within minutes, Mr. Mumford found himself embedded.
After this visit, he returned to Iraq three times, spending 10 and a half months there in total, much of it in Baghdad. Like an embedded journalist he outfitted himself with special protective gear - flak jacket, helmet, goggles and earplugs - when accompanying soldiers on patrols. He also carried brushes, ink, watercolors and drawing pads along with his notebook.
Like Winslow Homer before him, Mr. Mumford spent most of his time at military bases, chronicling the routine, monotony and constant togetherness of soldiers' daily lives. Often they are seen dozing on cots, doing paperwork, watching television or playing cards. But he also shows them standing guard, attending neighborhood council meetings, searching homes and hunched inside tanks, tensely watching the road.
Though he had not had much contact with the military before, Mr. Mumford said, he came away with strongly favorable feelings. "Most of the soldiers are really trying to do the right thing." he said. "I wanted to do them justice because I was really impressed."
On his last three visits, he also spent time exploring Baghdad, making drawings of the people he encountered. He said he had felt relatively safe until his last trip, when he began to sense he was being watched. For the most part, the people he met seemed to have regarded him as a curiosity. "Iraqis are so sweet and so forgiving," he said, "that even though they may resent the U.S. Army being there, most of them are sort of tickled to see an American."
Mr. Mumford also became friends with several Iraqi artists, who aided his deeper exploration of the city. In one dispatch, he discusses contemporary Iraqi art. During Saddam Hussein's time, he writes, the prevailing trend was abstraction, "a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect."
With such broad scope, "Baghdad Journal" differs from most journalistic endeavors. The writing, full of anecdotes and visual details, reads nothing like a news article. Nor does it resemble a blog. Though he took working photographs and made sketches and notes on the spot, Mr. Mumford often fleshed out his writing and drawings later, sometimes waiting until he had returned to New York to finish and file dispatches. And then, of course, there is the project's raison d'Ítre: the paintings themselves, all elegantly composed and coolly direct, yet strikingly different from one another in both subject matter and technique. Some were obviously made quickly, with ink and watercolor on paper. Others are more complex, fully worked in gouache, watercolor and oil. These Mr. Mumford painted later, working from snapshots - an approach he believes is similar to that of Homer, who seems to have used his own sketches to compose elaborate engravings of large-scale battle scenes. (Mr. Mumford plans to make his own large-scale oils in future.)
The very act of drawing often led to deeper engagement, with soldiers and civilians alike. "Because I would be sitting there drawing for so long," Mr. Mumford said, "everyone around me could see what I was doing, so there was none of the fear of the photograph. A lot of the time Iraqis who might not like their photograph taken would be happy to have me make a drawing, and this would lead to conversation."
Seen on their own without much writing, as they were in Mr. Mumford's solo show last fall at the Postmasters gallery in Chelsea, the drawings perplexed some critics because the Iraq depicted seems relatively tranquil. But after pointing out that he wasn't in Falluja, Mr. Mumford counters that this was the Iraq he found. Though the situation deteriorated over the course of his visits and anti-Americanism increased, he said that "90 percent of the time I was there it was a relatively peaceful situation, where people were trying to make the best of a difficult place."
Within the art world, which tends to operate under its own rules of engagement, there has also been unease about the illustrative aspect of the work, and for some it lacks the expected political edge. "I think it's difficult for them to look at what I'm doing because I don't take an antiwar position," Mr. Mumford said. (A selection of his drawings is on view at White Columns in the West Village, through Jan. 30.)
His own position changed over the course of his travels. He initially went to Iraq convinced that the war was a huge blunder, and now he is on the fence about whether the occupation can succeed. As he put it, "The Bush government made some really insane mistakes." Yet he began to understand the invasion differently after hearing firsthand about life under Mr. Hussein. "My consciousness was raised by the Iraqis themselves," he said.
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